Category Archives: Workers’ Compensation

Does Workers’ Compensation Cover Ebola?

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The recent news of Ebola in the United States has given me pause to think whether the nurses in Texas who contracted the Ebola virus are covered under the workers’ compensation system.

Here in Nebraska, the nurses with Ebola would almost certainly be covered. In Nebraska, occupational diseases are covered as long as the illness or injury was peculiar to the particular trade or employment. Generally, regular diseases that the general public is exposed to are not covered occupational diseases. For example, influenza, colds, or even MRSA (a type of antibiotic-resistant infection) would probably not be covered for a healthcare worker. Those diseases could be contracted in limitless places or circumstances. However unlike those diseases, I would think that Ebola coming from one single, easily identifiable source would be covered and would easily be proven to have come from the job of being that patient’s nurse.

Let’s just hope we never get to a point where Ebola becomes widespread enough that it would not be a covered occupational disease. If it does, we will have more problems than the compensability of a workers’ compensation claim. 

Examining Workers’ Compensation’s ‘Grand Bargain’ and the Upcoming Election

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Here’s why people should support candidates who will protect workers’ rights. Understand that the ongoing workers’ compensation issues faced by state legislatures are not going away, so state legislatures are the front lines when it comes to making sure workers’ compensation systems are not diluted even more for injured workers and their loved ones.

Here’s some background. Over 100 years ago, workers’ compensation law was developed across the United States. Nebraska was actually one of the pioneering states, back when we were more progressive.  Workers’ compensation was viewed as the “Grand Bargain,” with several presumptions on how the system should work. A January 2014 LexisNexis Legal News Room Workers Compensation Law blog post addresses these presumptions. The blog itself is a respected neutral source on workers’ compensation issues.

While employers and insurance companies are chipping away at the protection workers’ compensation systems offer to injured workers and their loved ones through stalling tactics such as disputing if an injury happened at work or just straight out refusing coverage, those same interests are bending the ears of each state’s politicians to further erode the “Grand Bargain.”

Year in and year out, business and insurance groups cause a large number of bills to be filed that take away benefits from workers or make it more difficult for workers to obtain benefits or take control of their treatment for work injuries.

A recent study’s results, written in the same blog by the same author, reinforces what many injured workers, their loved ones, and their attorneys already know: essentially that workers in New Mexico (and I would argue that this is easily applicable to injured workers in many states) are no longer benefitting from the “Grand Bargain.”

The Grand Bargain Is Out of Equilibrium

“An important part of the ‘grand bargain’ between employers and employees within the workers’ compensation arena is the idea that just as the wear and tear on an employer’s machinery ought to be reflected in the price of the employer’s goods or services, so also should the wear and tear on the employer’s work force. A product’s price should reflect the total cost of production, including the costs associated with work-related injuries and illnesses. The Seabury study adds weight to the argument that the grand bargain is out of equilibrium, that workers’ compensation benefits do not adequately replace what a worker loses through his or her injury, that the physical and economic costs associated with work-related injuries and illnesses are not being fully addressed, and that the injured worker is at least partially subsidizing the overall cost of America’s goods and services with his or her lost income.”

The bottom line from this respected author is that workers’ compensation benefits should not be reduced, made more difficult to obtain, etc., when workers who get injured already make less money over a 10-year period of time than workers who aren’t injured.

So let’s elect legislators who will both restore and support the “Grand Bargain” for injured workers and their loved ones.

Study: Work Comp Benefits Up; Employer Costs at Historic Low

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Respected colleague Thomas Domer of the Domer Law Firm in Milwaukee, recently wrote a post about a study released by the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI).

The study, titled Workers’ Compensation: Benefits, Coverage, and Costs, 2012, is a treasure trove of information, as you can see if you click on the 86-page document. The 2012 report was just released this summer, I am guessing because it takes a bit to compile all this data.

Here’s what Mr. Domer said about the study (reprinted with permission):

“A new study released by the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) indicates worker’s compensation benefits rose by 1.3% to $61.9 billion in 2012 while employer costs rose by 6.9% to $83.2 billion. Even though total benefits and costs increased in 2012, worker’s compensation benefits and costs per $100 of covered payroll have been lower from 2007 to 2012 than at any time over the last 30 years. In 2012 benefits were 98 cents per $100 of covered payroll while employer costs were $1.32 per $100 of covered payroll. 

Over the last 30 years medical benefits have accounted for an increasing share of total benefits from 33% in 1984 to nearly 50% in 2012. Medical benefits accounted for almost 50% of the $61 billion in total benefits paid. In Wisconsin medical benefits exceed cash benefits, indicating that medical cost containment is a significant issue.

The Academy’s report Worker’s Compensation: Benefits Coverage and Costs 2012 is the 17th in an annual survey. The report provides the nation’s only comprehensive data on worker’s compensation benefits coverage and employer costs.”

Rehm, Bennett & Moore includes attorneys licensed in both Iowa and Nebraska, so I was most interested in these two states. As Mr. Domer indicated, cash wage replacement benefits and medical benefits are almost even nationwide, although cash benefits used to be a much greater cost to employers than medical benefits were. There is some difference in benefits between states, too, according to the study.

“The share of benefits paid for medical care varies tremendously across states. The variation not only reflects between-state differences in amounts paid for medical care, but also differences in the relative generosity of cash benefits across states,” according to the study.

Both Iowa and Nebraska are the same as what Mr. Domer reported with Wisconsin above: medical benefits very much outpaced cash benefits, and medical cost containment is definitely a concern. In 2012 in Iowa, over $362 million was paid in medical benefits, while almost $280 million was paid in cash benefits. In 2012 in Nebraska, over $192 million was paid in medical benefits, while over $120 million was paid in cash benefits.

There is a lot more information to digest in this document, so perhaps future blog posts will address some of the details. But I will end on an encouraging note from the 2012 study: “Workers’ compensation covered an estimated 127.9 million workers, (90 percent of the employed workforce) an increase of 1.6 percent from the number of workers covered in 2011 (125.8 million). … Between 2010 and 2012, all states experienced an increase in both covered wages and covered workers.”

That is definitely good news for workers, whether injured or not, and their loved ones.

Are You Really an Independent Contractor?

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“Calling a dog’s tail a leg does not make it a leg.” Abraham Lincoln

FedEx drivers recently won two class-action lawsuits in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled that FedEx wrongfully withheld overtime pay, Social Security, unemployment, Medicare and other benefits to drivers because they were misclassified as independent contractors rather than employees. The decisions were driven by the fact that FedEx exercised control over the appearance of drivers as well as what packages to deliver, on what days, and at what times.

Though the FedEx decision only applies to Oregon and California, it is very possible that a similar decision would have been made under Nebraska law. Under the Nebraska Wage Payment and Collection Act as well as under the Employment Security Law, Neb. Rev. Stat. 48-601 et al., there is a five-part test as to whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee.

  1. Individual is free from control or direction under contract of hire
  2. Individual is free from control or direction as a matter of fact
  3. Service is outside the usual course of business for which service is performed
  4. Such service is performed outside of all the places of business of the enterprise which such service is performed
  5. Individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, business or profession.

Nebraska law creates a presumption of an employer-employee relationship. Tracy v. Tracy, 581 N.W. 2d 96, 7 Neb. App. 143 (Neb. Court of Appeals, 1998) In short, if you can answer most of those questions “no,” you are very likely an employee rather than an independent contractor. The mere fact that you may have signed a documents stating you are independent contractor does not necessarily mean you are an independent contractor.

In addition to protections under federal law, asking questions about your employment status is also a protected activity under Nebraska law. Being misclassified as an independent contractor could cost you thousands of dollars in wages and benefits. However, you have the ability to fight back if you are being misclassified.

Offices Closed for Labor Day on Friday, Monday

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Labor Day

Please be safe, and have a happy Labor Day weekend.

The firm’s offices will be closed on Friday, Aug. 29, and Monday, Sept. 1, for the Labor Day holiday. We will be open on Tuesday, Sept. 2, at 8:30 a.m. 

May your 2014 Labor Day celebration be thoughtful, fun and safe. Here’s a past blog post that I wrote about Labor Day, and the main points remain much more poignant, as 2014 is an election year, and as I’ve been writing in recent blog posts, workers, whether injured or not, are greatly affected by those who are elected. Because keep in mind that many workers’ protections are being eroded by business in pursuit of profit, and nonunionized workers generally fare worse than those who belong to unions.

So as you go about your business – whether marching in a Labor Day parade, traveling safely through the last weekend of summer, enjoying quiet time at home, or even providing for your family by working – think about your life situation and reflect on those workers who have gone before to provide a better quality of life for workers today, regardless of individual job situation. I know I will do just that.

Happy Labor Day! What are your plans? And why do we have this day off of work? Is it to celebrate summer ending and school starting? In Nebraska, it might be to celebrate what is often the first weekend of Husker football and the last weekend of the State Fair.

But are there other reasons? Just like the origins of workers’ compensation, we can attribute the fact that we have a holiday to the American worker.

Labor Day – the first Monday in September – celebrates the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of America,” according to www.usa.gov.

Sources explain in varying amounts of detail the controversy over who founded Labor Day and how the “workingmen’s holiday” was celebrated on that day. But what isn’t up for debate is that unions and their workers were a very important part of developing Labor Day to celebrate workers’ contributions.

I am pleased to share that the state of Nebraska was actually one of the first to celebrate Labor Day and had passed legislation recognizing the holiday by 1890. Other states that were Labor Day pioneers included Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.

There are some romantic notions about how Labor Day came into being, and some sources even gloss over some of the gritty details, but Continue reading

Attorney Brody Ockander Presents at Translators’ Conference

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Attorney Brody Ockander

Firm associate Brody Ockander recently served as a presenter at the Nebraska Association for Translators and Interpreters (NATI) 2014 Annual Regional Conference in Omaha.

His presentation included information on both civil litigation and workers’ compensation.

“Many of the interpreters I spoke with are interpreters for various Nebraska courts,” Ockander said. “Therefore, it is helpful for these interpreters to have at least some background knowledge about how the civil court and workers’ compensation systems work in order to ensure the best possible interpretation for all parties. For non-English speaking persons, equal access to justice hinges on whether the interpreter does a good job.”

As part of its conference, the NATI also served as host to the American Translators Association (ATA) certification exam.

The firm’s attorneys need access to translators for the many languages that our clients speak, so it is helpful that Ockander was able to interact with this group and serve as a resource for their conference. I encourage the firm’s attorneys and staff to participate in continuing education and networking opportunities through professional associations and other occasions, taking the occasion to serve as both presenters and lifelong learners.

Thank you to Ockander for representing the firm as a presenter at this conference.

Why Your Vote Matters to Workers

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I frequently write about the intersection of workers’ compensation benefits for workers and politics. The bottom line on my comments is that workers, and citizens who care about workers, need to vote for candidates who will protect workers’ rights. These comments arise from a now quarter-century attack on workers’ compensation benefits by big business and insurance interests. Their power is almost incomprehensible in terms of the money they will spend to take away or limit benefits.

Recently, a Florida court found that the limiting of workers’ benefits in Florida has destroyed the “social bargain” that led to the creation of workers’ compensation. Workers’ compensation laws are slightly more than 100 years old. The notion of a bargain is workers got fast and fair benefits in exchange for giving up their right to full compensation. There have been a lot of discussions since the big business/insurance attack on worker benefits that the bargain is no longer fair.

The Florida court also found the exclusive-remedy rule unconstitutional. The exclusive-remedy rule deprives injured workers and their families of benefits for pain, suffering and non-occupational disability. I have also represented a client in Nebraska where the exclusive-remedy rule was limited by a court.

Big business and big insurance will not back down. They won’t let up. As I write this blog, billions of dollars are being poured into political campaigns by the Koch Industries, TD Ameritrade and scores of others to support candidates who want to reduce and eliminate workers’ benefits.

Workers, their families, and everyone else who cares about ordinary human beings must not let these wealthy interests buy elections. We must stand up and vote. We must inform ordinary human citizens that the corporate citizens are taking away our rights as fast as they can. This is a crucial election, and every election will be crucial until people stand up and convince the mega wealthy that they can’t buy elections any longer.

When Did My Workers’ Compensation ‘Accident’ Occur?

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Nebraska workers’ compensation law states that an accident is “an unexpected or unforeseen injury happening suddenly and violently, with or without human fault, and producing at the time objective symptoms of an injury.” Neb. Rev. Stat. §48-151(2). In our practice, we are often faced with a situation where an injured worker is unable to answer the question: “When did the accident occur?” Often, this is because they don’t even realize they have experienced what Nebraska workers’ compensation law considers to be an “accident.” The plain, ordinary and popular understanding of what “suddenly and violently” means in the English language doesn’t seem to fit with this situation. This is because the injury resulted from repetitive trauma – i.e. an overuse injury – and the worker is unable to point to a particular point in time when an “accident” occurred. They didn’t slip and fall, nothing fell on their foot, they weren’t in a car accident, etc. It just started hurting and affecting how well they could do their job then finally got so bad that they had to seek medical treatment.  The Nebraska Supreme Court recently addressed this issue, and, in the process, reaffirmed and explained Nebraska’s rule for determining when a repetitive trauma injury happened. 

In Nebraska, the phrase “suddenly and violently” means only that the injury manifested at an identifiable point in time. The rule for the last 15 years or so has been that the “identifiable point in time” is essentially when an employee discontinues employment and seeks medical attention. What this means in simpler terms is that the date of accident is whenever an injury got so bad an injured worker had to take off work to go to the doctor. The Supreme Court reaffirmed this rule for a number of reasons, including how simple it is to determine the date of accident, based on this objective criteria. The Court also found that it just makes sense to say that an employee has really experienced a decrease in their employability or earning capacity, and therefore experienced a disability, when they have to take time off work to go to the doctor.   

Why is it important to know the date of accident in a repetitive-trauma case? It is important for a number of reasons, and you should seek the advice of an experienced workers’ compensation attorney for more information and/or assistance with your case. Particularly for injured workers, it is important because it is relevant to when the statute of limitations on the case begins to run. These injuries often start developing years before they get so bad that the worker must take time off to go to the doctor. This fact may discourage injured workers from reporting or pursuing workers’ compensation claims because they think it is too late. It is always important to understand whether your claim is barred by the statute of limitations or not, but knowing when the accident occurred is the first step in that determination. It is also important because the maximum benefit rates available to injured workers for temporary and permanent indemnity benefits are based on what year the accident occurred and change from year to year. Finally, it is important because people change jobs, and companies change ownership. Regardless of how long an injury took to develop, and how many different employers an injured worker performed work for, Nebraska law states that the employer who employed that worker on the date of accident, and their insurance company, is liable to that worker.